MATT COOPER: If only we could have heard the brutal truth from Intel’s ex-chief

IT seems Craig Barrett might be the man to give us a state of the nation address.

The retired chief executive of American semi-conductor manufacturer Intel — one of the most important companies in the country — apparently delivered a wake-up call at the Global Economic Forum at Farmleigh last weekend, although unfortunately it was delivered indoors to the select, invited guests, many of whom are not Irish or who, if they are, limit the amount of time they spend here to reduce the tax they pay to this State.

That said, there was benefit in his addressing this particular audience: there are people, many of whom were at Farmleigh, who still think we are a great little nation that has been a bit unlucky recently to suffer unjustly from an international recession and that the same elite who brought us to the brink are the people to lead us from it. This is a complacency that needs to be shattered quickly.

In a speech that reportedly lasted less than five minutes, Barrett castigated the failures of the country, saying that of the 14 reasons why the American giant invested in the country originally (back in 1989) only one still applied: our low level of corporation tax.

In particular, he is said to have castigated the shortcomings of the education system — which is no longer producing sufficiently qualified people for the skilled jobs that are being offered — and the failure to encourage research and development so that new ideas and processes would be forthcoming from Ireland rather than being imported.

It is not hard to imagine what else he took issue with: soaring wage rates compared to other countries, a return to higher taxes on income, still high housing costs (even after the bursting of the property bubble) and a transport infrastructure that has struggled to cope, even after major investment, with the demands of a bigger economy.

If he didn’t, he should have castigated a tax system that actively encouraged the property bubble and persuaded many people with capital to invest in bricks and mortar rather than productive assets. It also diverted government resources from investment in education and research at the same time as shortlived surpluses were used to increase payments into the public service without getting equivalent improvements.

I suspect a sense of loyalty to Ireland from those within the room has prevented full details of what Barrett said from emerging. However, what he said is probably what many other Irish-Americans and other foreigners think about us anyway.

What Barrett reportedly said is a damning indictment of the failures of the period that came to be known as the Celtic Tiger era.

After more than a decade of the biggest surge in prosperity the country has known, in which we reached more or less full employment, we have little or nothing to show for it.

We have blown much of our domestic capital because its owners became debt junkies and now we have returned to our historic reliance on overseas investment. However, we appear to have nothing that would attract a foreign multinational to think of investing in this country, save for low corporation taxes.

How sad is that?

All this talk of providing an entry to the EU for American companies no longer really matters: since the accession to the enlarged EU of all the new east European states those countries can provide what the multinationals want at a far cheaper cost and the educated (and ambitious) workforce is there, just as it was in Ireland 20 years ago.

No wonder Dell left Limerick for Poland (even leaving aside the state grants made available to it and approved by the European Commission this week).

Will anyone be surprised if others follow suit? Will anyone be surprised if more and more American multinational bosses fly over Ireland on their way further east to search for investment points?

Last weekend’s gathering of about 150 businessmen in Dublin was better than nothing but let’s not sell it as being more important than what it was, which some of the self-satisfied participants, eager to polish their own egos publicly, were trying to do. That is not to deny there were some very talented and proven people present with a sincere desire to help Ireland recover some of what it has lost in recent years. But much the line-up was about who knew whom as much as who could do something of practical use.

I’m sure there were some very good ideas — and indeed some very good ideas that may even be acted upon — but the focus may not have been quite as it should have been.

No disrespect to those who attended Farmleigh, but it would have been better if there were far more younger people there and far more mainland Europeans. Everyone there should have been matched by others under 40 — men and women — who have the ideas and ambition for the future, even if it was just to give them the opportunity to meet those who actually attended. Looking at the list I doubt if anyone that young was there. The young people could have learnt from the failures of some of those there too. Many of those present do not have unblemished records: some have made disastrous personal or corporate investments. Others have invested significantly in property. I doubt if much of that was said as the mutual backslapping went on.

I’ll bet too that many of those present either made much of their fortunes or did the things that contributed to later success when they were much younger, had more creativity and less fear of failure.

Currently we are debating a constitutional referendum to endorse a treaty that, in theory, will bring us deeper into Europe, but many of the participants at last weekend’s event — if they weren’t Irish — came from much further afield.

ALTHOUGH the emphasis was on tapping into those with an Irish heritage — and those people are more likely to be living and working in the US or Britain — it would have been helpful if some more Europeans had been found to contribute, especially considering that we are part of the euro, as well as a 27-country union.

As it happens the main issues facing the country remain ones that require political action. There will be few opportunities for private enterprise if the public finances — and the behaviour of the banks — are not sorted out.

If only Craig Barrett could have delivered his address publicly to the population at large because the penny does not seem to have dropped yet with some people as to how seriously bad our current position is.

Even when it has, many people are arguing that they should be exempt from whatever corrective action the Government needs to take and judging by the way various ministers are behaving this week it seems they are fearful of the electoral consequences if they do what is being recommended to them.

While relatively few people are responsible for the bulk of what happened, unfortunately those who are at fault cannot be made to pay all the damages, much fairer as that might be. It should be that way, but it won’t happen.

Matt Cooper’s book ‘Who really runs Ireland?’ has just been published by Penguin Ireland.


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